Baños Revisited

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I’ve written about Baños before.  It was where we went when Nancy and I took our first road trip together, spontaneously between Christmas and New Year.  And more recently, it was where we unexpectedly spent our nights during our trip to Ambato for Carnaval.  During that recent trip, Tungurahua, the iconic volcano that hovers above the steep slopes along the edge of town, was gently billowing a white plume of smoke:

In the last several weeks, however, Tungurahua has taken to erupting more violently.  As you can see from this photo, which was not taken by me:

As we’ll see later, Baños is famous especially for its thermal baths, which are fueled by the same stuff that is blowing out of the top of Tungurahua presently.  And so, in honor of this town which is currently experiencing all the effects of a nearby erupting volcano, and in honor of the good friends I went there with last year, we’ll take one more virtual tour of Baños de Ambato.  This time, seen through the collective eyes of four travelers: Eva, Eric, Clint, and myself, on a weekend road trip.  So enjoy, as I once again probe the depths of my long term memory.

I suppose the first thought that comes to mind from that trip was getting off the bus and coming face-to-face with two immigration cops.  You see, as the United States may begin experimenting with soon enough, starting with the great State of Arizona, Ecuador’s government reserves the right to detain those who look like they don’t come from around here, and ask them for their papers.  The two officers that stopped us were friendly enough, and we all conveniently had the appropriate documents on hand.  One of the men collected them from each of us and took them to a nearby copier for their records, while the remaining man in uniform hung around and tried to make small talk with us.  Officer #1 returned, gave us back our IDs, they both shook each of our hands in turn, and were off.  All in all, a five minute run-in with the law, and we were back on our way.

Nonetheless, such an experience can be jarring, and has the potential to rub a person the wrong way.  But I learned years ago that these kinds of situations are best passed smiling, nodding and trying not to do or say much more than for what is asked.  Incidentally, all told I’ve had three encounters on the street with Ecuador’s immigration police in as many years, and all of the experiences were handled expediently and amiably by the officers involved.  Were we profiled on the basis of the color of our skin?  Probably.  But according to the CIA Factbook, some 90% of the population of Ecuador lies somewhere between mestizo and full-on Native American, so I guess we were pretty easy to spot.

After discussing such points as we walked through town, we made our way to our lodging for the weekend.  At $5 each per night if I remember correctly, it was a great deal, and put us in a room made for a group of four travelers: two bunk beds, one hot shower, and opening onto a covered patio with free internet, a fireplace and a self-serve fridge full of beer and bottled water.

Add nearby patio dining to such a place to stay, and you’ve got a set of happy campers.

In fact, there were a number of good places to eat in the vicinity.  The place pictured to the left was an upstairs patio with plants and panoramic views of the valley, and delicious stacks of pancakes with fruity yogurt on top.

Also highly recommended in Baños is Casa Hood.  Run by a long time expat from the US, it’s been on the backpacker’s radar for so long that you hear more travel stories in English there than you’ll hear anything in Spanish.  The wait staff is comprised of locals, however, and while the menu is loaded with options ranging from Hummus plates to Asian stir-fries, the backside (or is it the front?) of said menu is printed dutifully in Spanish for when locals or tourists from Ecuador or around South America make the rounds here as well.

It’s well worth mentioning that Baños, being the haven for travelers that it is, has stepped it up quite well with its dining options.  From ubiquitous rotisserie chicken and stands selling the town’s hallmark fresh hard taffy, to early hour breakfast nooks selling pancakes with cane syrup and bacon rashers, I’ll say it now: for a town as small as Baños, it beats Cuenca by a long shot in terms of dining options for travelers.

With a comparable number of backpackers and other travelers heading through Cuenca, one could do well taking a page from Casa Hood’s book, for example: great hours, a big and diverse menu, an honest book exchange, movies projected daily, and stacks of board games for all ages.  A place like that just begs for people to hang out for hours on end, and to keep ordering just one more item off the menu as they do.  All the while, contributing to an atmosphere that simply builds upon itself for the next group on its way in the door.  In many towns and cities in Latin America, at least one entrepreneur, either local or extranjero, has seemed to have picked up on just that kind of formula and run with it, with great success.  It surprises me that someone hasn’t yet done it in Cuenca, but it’s never too late.

Having now written twice about Baños de Ambato, I really should get around to the thermal baths themselves.  They are, after all, what put this town on the map since long ago, although there are probably plenty of tourists who head through Baños today without ever soaking in the pools on the edge of downtown. They’re priced so well and offered up so piping hot, though, that it’s really worth it to check them out.

On this trip, we went a couple of times.  First, we took a soak in the evening, when there are fewer people.  At that hour we were directed to a smaller pool which was full just about to the limit of personal space, without quite going over.  There, we took shifts sitting on the built-in benches along the edge of the circular pool, which left you about up to your neck in hot water.  Whoever wasn’t occupying the coveted bench seats we had claimed was standing in the center of the pool or perched along the edge, soaking their feet.

That night, the water was really nice, just a few degrees above body temperature, warm enough to stay in for a good long time without getting cold, nor overheated.  That being the case, stay for a good, long time we did.  During that time, we observed that there was a pipe at about 3 o’clock, from our perspective in the circular pool.  And at that precise spot, there was a woman who was basking in the hot water as it poured forth from the source.  It must have been a pleasant experience, as that water would have been hotter still than the water in general circulation throughout the pool.  It would have also given her a gentle aqua-massage from the water pressure, I would imagine.

All I can do is imagine, however, seeing as how, during the good long time we spent there, she was already in her place when we arrived and was still there when we left.  That was her spot, and she wasn’t leaving it.  While she generally spent her time with her back to the source of the water, she occasionally turned around and dunked her head into the water as it issued forth, sticking her face into the flow, and as her body language indicated, truly getting into it at moments like those.  So it was that our casual observation of this woman’s interaction with the source of the thermal water was impressive enough to have imprinted itself definitively on our minds for the duration of the weekend.  “Tapping the source,” and “communing with the source” became the allegorical reference points for our trip, used effectively to explain many other concrete and philosophical happenings as our journey in and around Baños continued.

Of course, we were also impressed by the hot water itself, and resolved to be back again in the daytime.  Clint, who had spent months living in Baños previously, knew that the freshest, hottest water was to be had first thing in the morning, and that at such a time there would be fewer people, as well.  And so we set our alarm and were walking back along the road to the thermal baths as the sun was rising.  From a block away we could already see the steam rising into the cool air from the raised pools, and it was a race to get changed, to take the prerequisite shower rinse before entering the pool, and jumping in.

The morning pool was a larger one, and at the time there was hardly anyone there.  But there would be no jumping in.  To jump into that water would be something like a lobster jumping willingly into the stewpot he’d be cooked in.  Instead, one was compelled to either gingerly ease into the piping hot water, or just making a go of it and trodding in all at once.  But jumping, that would be enough to stop the heart of a weaker man, or at least to make him scream like a girl.

We likened water that hot to being akin to exceedingly cold water.  It took some psyching up to get into all at once, and once in, it was equally difficult to stay in for very long.  Unlike very cold water, however, it was incredibly pleasant to get in for a few minutes, and then get out for a couple more to feel the cool, fresh morning air, and then get back in again, and then back out.  Such a process could be repeated endlessly if it weren’t for things like pancakes and bacon.  And it was for such things that we finally got out.

By the time all these people got there, the water had cooled down enough to where you could just stay in, eliminating the necessary ritual of getting out occasionally before you got cooked.

Also revealed in this photo is the waterfall careening mistily down the mountainside in the background.  Unlike the water in the pools, that water is just regular, ice cold mountain water.  And also unlike the water in the pools, it’s white and fresh-looking.  Just why is the water in the pools that slightly unappealing brownish color, you may ask?  That’s because it’s loaded with minerals.  In addition to coming out from its volcanic source at very high temperatures, it also has the distinction of having a very high mineral content, which adds to its appeal for those seeking a therapeutic bath.  Here’s a summary of the minerals that have been isolated from a typical water sample, as posted above the pools:

As you can see, the concentrations of minerals are listed as milligrams per liter, not parts per million or anything like that.  So some of these concentrations could be considered to be significant.  I have no idea how much contact with hexane and/or substances soluble in hexane is therapeutic for the skin, for example.  A soak in that water sure is enjoyable, though.  But I wouldn’t drink it!

The other portion of our trip left us on the side of a highway, seeking transport down the mountain.  As you’ll see, while Baños itself is at an high altitude and cool climate similar to Cuenca, a quick ride down the road towards Puyo will see the scenery change rapidly towards the tropical.  On the way down, you’ll also see people engaged in many different modes of transportation: rented bikes, four wheelers, the inevitable bus, and in our case, people clinging to the back of a pickup truck.

Well, at this point there was no clinging yet.  The road out of town begins as a straight, downhill shot, with great views of the surrounding countryside.  We were able to enjoy the ride casually enough along that leg of the trip.

But as the journey continues, the road begins to wind around, and occasionally through, the mountains:

Note that this tunnel, burrowing ominously into the depths of the hillside, is just one lane.  Some briefly illuminated glimpses from within the interior darkness are to follow.

It’s been awhile since it happened, but when this picture was taken, I seem to be remember thinking about what that roll bar would do to my smile if we came to a sudden stop.  You will also notice the color of the hand in the foreground.  An effect of the nearby flash, or a true white knuckle experience?

But we went through that tunnel, and all the tunnels between Baños and our destination, with no real trouble at all.  And what was our destination?  We were bound for the pailón del diablo, which you might call the Devil’s Skillet.  But before I get to that, we’ll spend some time in an area we stopped at further up the hill.

Here we were on board a tarabita, a dangling cable car that you can hire to get across the river valley you see beyond.  On the other side of the valley from the highway there is a small system of hiking trails to explore, which we wandered around for an hour or two.

One path led down below the engine station that drives the cable car, where we got a different perspective on some other people enjoying the same ride, which also gives a good look at the car itself.

In addition to some easy hiking, the trails also pass by some people’s homes, many of which are given over to restaurants with their own little trout ponds.  Introduced trout abounds in the wild in the mountain lakes of Ecuador, and people have acquired a real taste for them.  So many enterprising folk have dug out their own little trout farms, complete with separate ponds used for raising the fry:

These little fishies, much like ourselves the day before at the thermal baths, enjoyed an environment kept relatively fresh by a little pipe that constantly fed clean water into their little pond.  And as we had witnessed back in Baños, there was one ambitious individual in the trout pond who was trying to tap that source of water, wriggling with all abandon right up in the spout of moving water.  It became clear to us then that a theme was emerging.

After seeing such a profusion of trout all around, we were moved by our empty stomachs to stop at one of the restaurants offering pesca deportiva, or that is, sport fishing.  But a look at the water in the upcoming photos reveals that there isn’t much sporting at all about catching fish in such a little pond, where the swirling mass of trout seize instantly upon anything resembling food.  My own sport fishing experience lasted all of a few seconds.  First I dunked my baited hook into the living whirlpool of fish:

A tug on the line, and up came my lunch:

Within a few minutes everyone who’d be partaking of fresh trout had done the same, and while it wasn’t much of a challenge to get the fish out of water, it still provided some entertainment.  We had a seat at a table around the corner, ice cold beer was served, soon to be followed by our fried trout.  And then, good times proceeded to be had, by all.

Enough about fish ponds, you might be saying to yourself.  What’s up with this pailón?  I was just getting to that…

The pailón del diablo is a really big waterfall.  Ecuador, so blessed with majestic mountains and lots of rain, is home to countless numbers of waterfalls, big and small.  And this is one of the big ones.  I mean, it’s no Niagara Falls or Cataratas del Iguazú, but it’s pretty big.

I had seen it the year before, on my previously mentioned first road trip with Nancy.  And I was happy to return, remembering the nice hike down to the falls, which takes you through some nice, natural, tropical scenery, and also the awe-inspiring falls themselves.  And once there, it was interesting to see that they had built a little corridor through the cliff side that led right up and even right behind the surging torrent of water as it spills down.  Walking along the slick rocks, ducking down under the low ceiling, buffeted by the ubiquitous spray coming off the falls, we were able to get up to the little cave behind them, and take pictures:

From the high vantage point of the falls, you are afforded a nice glimpse into the warmer climate the short ride down from Baños will leave you.

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, such a landscape comes pretty close to my mind’s eye-view of what Ecuador was going to be like, before I ever actually saw it.  Tropical hills, dripping with moisture and vegetation, cut through by mountain streams and kept eternally warm by the sun along its equatorial course.

That, among many other things, is Ecuador.  It’s also big banana plantations and little potato farms, tiny grass huts and centuries old cathedrals, the disdainful rich with their ancestral names and properties, and humble country people with their hands, feet and knees proudly in the soil.

For now life and employment has me firmly rooted in the city, and wherever I live, it would seem that into the foreseeable future, cities are where I’ll be living.  As content with that forecast as I am, may there be, some day, a place for me in the tropical mountains.

Such are the thoughts that cross my mind when it is granted a brief moment to glimpse a natural panorama and time to reflect upon it.  But for now, such moments are still few, with life back in the city between.  And so we made our way back up the hill, in the back of a pick up:

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